If you've ever been in a relationship for more than 6 months then you know that love and romance don't always feel like prancing through a field of rainbows with your "lover" (why does that gross word even exist?). The reality of romance is that once the initial fairy tale magic wears off and the hustle and bustle of daily life sets in, maintaining a relationship is NOT like Nicholas Sparks says it is. It's hard. And sometimes it's not pretty or attractive at all. You may think that your relationship will look like Buttercup and Westley's for the rest of your life - all lusty and moony-eyed - but it won't. You'll probably gain weight and develop an embarrassing skin rash at some point. And your idea of sexy lingerie will become the underwear that don't have any holes in them yet. But that's ok. It just means you're normal.
So this year, instead of suggesting mushy-gushy love stories or sexy, steamy lust stories for Valetine's Day reading, I thought I'd put together a list of books that I think more accurately depict the reality of romance.
Autobiography of a Fat Bride by Laurie Notaro
I love Laurie Notaro for so many reasons, one of them being that she has no disillusions about romantic relationships. There may not even be a romantic bone in her body, but that's ok, because she and her husband are just fine with a night of heavy food and TV. This hilarious collection of essays chronicles Laurie's experiences as she ties the knot and enters the realm of "marital bliss." If you've ever had to plan a wedding and found it stressful and nerve-racking, then this is the Valentine's Day book for you. Sure the honeymoon is over, but Laurie Notaro shows us that real people can love each other in sweatpants just fine!
Bonk by Mary Roach
This book is subtitled "The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," and that's exactly what it is - a scientific approach to sex rather than a romantic approach. Bonk explores the questions about sex that couples may be afraid to ask or discuss. Yeah, it might ruin the mood if you're prone to asking things like, "Honey, do paraplegics have orgasms too?" but that's what Mary Roach is here for. There's nothing romantic about this book, but it sure is fascinating. After all, inquiring minds want to know, and Mary Roach is not afraid to investigate anything, even if it means prying into people's intimate, personal lives in order to find out more about one of the most taboo topics in history.
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
J. Courtney Sullivan's 2011 novel chronicles the lives of 4 women in the Kelleher family and their respective relationships. One is a widow, one is an unwed mother, one is increasingly unhappy in her stale marriage, and the other is beginning a new relationship at 50-something. None of them have fairy tale romances as they encounter real problems that real couples face, such as commitment issues, infidelity, and regret. But that's exactly why readers are able to empathize with the Kelleher women so well - because J. Courtney Sullivan is brave enough to suggest that lust and romance may not be the only way to find fulfillment in a relationship. You can read my full review here.
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Reading this novel may be reminiscent of reading a fairy tale because of the mysterious circumstances of the plot, but it's more like a cautionary fairy tale than anything else. Something strange has happened in Stellar Plains, New Jersey - all the women have lost their interest in sex - and their husbands/boyfriends are completely dumbfounded. The women may be under a temporary spell, but the repercussions are permanent as we realize that passion and lust are fleeting, but they don't have to disappear forever, nor should we take them for granted. Relationships need tending if they are to flourish, but a healthy relationship will probably look different for every couple, and The Uncoupling provides us with a pretty good sampling. You can read my full review from 2011 here.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
This story of unrequited love is probably the most romantic one you'll find on this list, but the circumstances of the plot and setting make it relevant. Tipping the Velvet is about the late 19th century romance of Nan King and Kitty Butler - two young women who fall in love in Victorian England. For obvious reasons, they are forced to keep their relationship a secret, that is until Kitty abruptly ends their romance, and Nan sets out to find fulfillment on her own (sometimes looking in all the wrong places). But this novel, published in 2000, isn't just about unrequited love - it's about the social and political circumstances that can affect relationships, and those circumstances make us realize that no matter who you love, relationships always have been and always will be challenging. But you know what they say, the greater the challenge the greater the reward...sometimes at least.